The recent tragic development of many houses ( and other buildings) being devastated and many families having to leave their homes in Joshimath and to a lesser extent in some other parts of Uttarakhand has once again raised serious questions regarding the path of development being pursued in the Himalayan region. A crucial question relates to whether such concern will lead to a real change in the highly distorted policy framework being pursued at present in the Himalayan region, and more particularly in Uttarakhand.
If we read the response of some senior government representatives of Uttarakhand government to recent devastation in Joshimath and what they are saying in carefully prepared statements is that they have always tried to strike a balance between economic development and environmental needs, and will continue to do so. Any recognition that government policies and practices have gone seriously wrong and have contributed to the present devastation and previous disasters is carefully kept out of discussion and specific questions relating to this by journalists ( when at all these are raised) are being sidelined. Scientists who are in government service or affiliated institutions, some of whom had spoken out in more independent ways recently to relate such disasters to government projects and neglect of caution, are being ‘advised’ against this. It appears likely that several of them will be ‘encouraged’ to highlight only those causes or factors which do not implicate any government officials, policy makers or project executors, or indicate need for changing the present development path. Thereby any need for basic changes in policies for the Himalayan region is also likely to be sidelined or just denied.
This is very sad, as basic changes in policy for the Himalayan region are urgently needed. These should be based on protection of ecologically protective and sustainable livelihoods, while avoiding anything that increases the vulnerability of a geologically young, unstable and high seismicity region. Safety and sustainability should be the key words of a highly protective policy framework—protective of environment, people and their livelihoods. This will not just help the hills of Uttarakhand and the people living here, this will also be very helpful for the vast plains below and the much larger population, many times more people living there. The fact that hills also protect plains (or can turn destructive towards them if wrong policies are pursued in hills) provides the rationale for greater budgetary support for protective work there from the central government, as this writer has often argued. Once this basic reality is understood and creates the basic policy framework, Uttarakhand with all its great rivers and lakes, hills and valleys can be the ideal abode for many highly creative spiritual, educational, environmental, bio-diversity protection and sustainable livelihood promotion efforts, with adequate attention being also given to concerns of justice and equality.
Unfortunately the government has ignored this, and instead has chosen to integrate Uttarakhand within the prevailing development model of unenlightened crony capitalism, with disastrous results. Here the extraction of resources ( predominant emphasis at present being on hydro power ) becomes the driving force and those placed in the driving seat start calling the shots in policy making, implementation and related governance. The next priority is allotted to luxury tourism and luxury pilgrimage, with helicopters and helipads disrupting the tranquility of the great pilgrimage sites which our wise ancestors had selected for their solitude and closeness to nature, exactly what is being violated now by aggressive pursuit of luxury pilgrimage and tourism, to the point that it can disrupt the grace and the natural beauty of the coveted sites. We live in dystopian times, in which our leaders start by worshipping the Ganga and end up with launching luxury cruises, selling tickets costing millions, where river-protection drives and campaigns end up with rivers becoming more destructive and polluted.
Is protection a part of present policy even to a very limited extent? Joshimath is built on the remains of the debris of what must have been a very massive landslide in history. Once geologists have told this to the government it is normally assumed that the government must follow a very protective policy in such a place. In the case of Joshimath this was also re-emphasized by the Mishra Committee Report during the 1970s which said clearly– do not disturb the very fragile conditions here. The Chipko movement here also said the same. When the authorities ignored all this and invited dam builders and other big builders to the very hazardous and high vulnerability conditions of an area which is also a region of great reverence, pilgrimage paths and spirituality for people all over the country and even started hollowing the area beneath the highly vulnerable abodes, building tunnels, using explosives in at least parts of construction area, big landslides and other destructive incidents were bound to occur. This led local activists ( like Atul Sati), including elected local panchayat representatives and village elders, to form a struggle committee and this committee kept drawing attention to every mistake, every new step towards increasing hazards, kept inviting experts to independently draw attention to the disaster in making, organized protests when indiscriminate constructions led to water aquifers being breached leading to release of massive quantities of water, when an under construction tunnel was filled with rubble and workers perished, but all this was ignored by authorities pre-occupied with pursuing hydro projects, highways, helipads, big hotels, international sports resorts, tunnels and bypasses—their number one priority was to speed up all this involving money interests of big men and their commission receiving agents, local officials were evaluated and judged by this, anything else became of secondary importance at best or of no importance at worst. This was the path which brought us to the present situation of houses and building cracking up. As Atul Sati told a journalist –“When we had so much to say, no one heard us. Now everyone is asking us, when we have nothing left to say”, implying thereby that all the devastation caused is now there for everyone to see.
It is this kind of experiences which have led to many disasters and disasters in the making in the Himalayan region, and why we should re-emphasize the need for people-driven basic changes in Himalayan policy, people getting mobilized adequately to ensure that such basic policy changes are actually made.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.